Today is World Mental Health Day, so I am especially honoured to share a beautiful and insightful conversation about healing and self-discovery. Our 42nd episode features Dr Kaela S. Singleton, the campaign manager at Solving for Science. After completing her BSc in Neuroscience and Classical History at Agnes Scott College and her PhD in Neuroscience at Georgetown University, Dr Singleton went on to become a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University. During our conversation, we discussed the moment at which she realized that a career in academic research wasn’t as fulfilling as she once thought it would be. As we chatted about the (mild) existential crisis that followed, we touched upon her introspective journey towards delineating her value as a human being from her talent as a neuroscientist.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Kaela S. Singleton: So much of my identity and my self-worth, and value were tied to being a successful neuroscientist, and it took a lot, not just career coaching but life stuff too, for me to see that that's not true. I am valuable and worthy and great without a career. A lot of it was finding my own idea of self-worth and coming to the realization that I am not my job. I'm a person, and I don't have to be exceptional at everything that I do.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Kaela S. Singleton, the campaign manager at Solving for Science. She previously completed her PhD in Neuroscience at Georgetown University and her BSc in Neuroscience and Classical History at Agnes Scott College. Most recently, she wrapped up a very successful postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University. Dr Singleton is the president of Black in Neuro, a grassroots organization that fosters community and connection between Black neuroscientists around the world. She recently started her new role at Solving for Science, so I'm elated to chat with Kaela about the ins and outs of her new position, but let's start from the very beginning—Kaela, what's your story?
KSS: Awesome, thank you so much for having me. I feel really honored to be here.
I think my story starts when I was in the seventh grade, [that] is where I normally start my story. It was the first time I ever cared about science. I did this science outreach thing at my middle school where they brought all of these animal brains for us to look at and dissect, and I thought it was just really cool. Fast forward a couple of years later when I was in high school, I realized that I needed to go to college because that was my parents' thing. They really didn't care about [anything else]. They were like, 'You have to go to college,' and the only thing I was interested in before that was literature, reading books, talking about them, and hanging out with my friends, but I remembered that seventh grade science class and I was like, Oh, I should do that; I should study brains. That's gotta be a thing that people do. All of my teachers were shocked. They were like, 'What? What are you talking about?' <Laugh> 'You've never enjoyed a science class in the four years you've been in high school,' which was true.
I didn't know that studying brains was even called neuroscience until I looked more into it. But once I decided to go to Agnes, I earned the opportunity to do a lot of science outreach and work in science labs, and all of my mentors in those undergraduate settings were like, 'You should go to graduate school and you can do this. You can be a professor, you can teach.' And I really enjoyed teaching people how to do science, like, the physical act of doing science. It was something that I was naturally good at. Through the encouragement of my mentors, I decided that I would go to grad school. It was also one of those things [where] everybody was asking me what I was going to do after graduation, and I did not have an answer for them! <Laugh> I hadn't really thought that far. It felt like the next logical step, but it wasn't at the forefront of my mind, if that makes sense. When I was going through the journey, I was just having fun. And then I was like, Oh yeah, I guess I could do that.
AB: I love that. So, when people started talking about doing science at the professor level, is that where your mind often went when you thought about your future, at least in the latter stages of your graduate degree?
KSS: When I was at Georgetown, my original career goal was to get my degree, go back to Agnes, become a professor there, and give back to the community that poured into me so deeply. And I think, as I stayed at Georgetown, I just learned that there are different ways to do that very thing.
AB: Okay. And that's, I imagine, what led you to the position that you're in right now. Tell me everything! I want to know as much as possible about this role.
KSS: Yeah. I feel like I should start somewhere in the mild existential crisis that got me—
AB: Oh, that's always fun!
KSS: <Laughs> —to look at jobs outside of academia. After I defended [and] graduated from Georgetown, I was really jaded. It was also the start of the pandemic, but I had been planning my exit from graduate school for two years. I was like, I have to get out of here. I had earned funding [for] the last two years of my graduate degree and the next four years of my postdoc, so for me, a postdoc was the easiest job to get because I already had the money for it.
When I was looking for postdocs, I knew that I wanted to be close to home—and my family is in Georgia—mainly because I knew I couldn't make friends again as an adult. That wasn't a skill that I had within me anymore, so I [thought], I'll go back home [and] not start over, but start anew.
When I was looking for postdocs, I was in this mindset of, I'm going to give this like one last shot, because the idea of being a PI (principal investigator) didn't really have the same attractiveness as it did before; it felt like a lot of work, and it felt like a lot of work that I wasn't necessarily super trained for or knew anything about. When I talked to my postdoc PI about that, he was really upfront about it, ‘Yeah, we can turn this into a mini-PI bootcamp for you and you can see how you like it.’ So, I did everything from the budgeting to the project management. I taught classes at Agnes Scott. I was a one-woman show and it was great! But I was really, really tired <laugh>.
AB: Yeah, I can imagine!
KSS: I think... I feel like it's safe to say that I kind of got super burnt out very quickly. I think in the middle, [or maybe] the beginning of the second year of my postdoc, I had gotten two faculty job offers at smaller liberal arts colleges and I had turned them down. I was kind of starting to come to this realization that this wasn't as fulfilling a career as I wanted it to be. One day I was drinking coffee and dramatically weeping about not knowing what I was going to do with my life, and I got this email from Emory's postdoctoral career development office. It was the Director of Career Advancement—I think [that’s] her official title—and she was a career coach looking for postdocs to help [her] get this final career coach certification.
I emailed her and we had a meeting where I basically said, 'I'm not entirely sure what this is, but is this a coach-able problem that I'm having?' Through that career coach journey, I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about different jobs in all of science.
All of that backstory to circle back to your original question <chuckle>: one of my friends told me about the Solving for [Science] job, and I was like, I should apply for it. I had been in career coaching for a year and a half at that point. I knew that I was going to leave academia. I was really content with that, [but] I hadn't found a job that sounded cool, or something that motivated me to apply for it. When I read the Solving for [Science] ad, it felt like a friend wrote it: someone who has a similar vernacular and jargon to me, someone who is enthusiastic about change, about building community, and isn't afraid to make mistakes when they do those kinds of things. I went to Victor, my boss, and I said, 'Hey, I'm going to apply to this job.' It was the first job I'd ever applied to [so I thought], I'm not going to get it, but I think it would be really great practice. I also wanted to know more about this company because they seemed really cool. He was super supportive and he was like, 'Yeah, do it. If you get it, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.' Two weeks later, I had to go back to <laugh> him and be like, 'So remember when I said I probably wasn't gonna get the first job that I applied to? I did in fact get the job, and now I have to leave.' <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> Aww! Was he sad to see you go?
KSS: He was very sad. Me and a grad student had the same last day, and everybody thought that he was going to cry in the lab. It was the worst day for him, but he was so supportive. He still has been super supportive and wonderful. He emails me all the time and we chat. So, it was really just through the confidence of Solving for [Science] and the compassion that they lead with that [convinced me to] do this. It met all of the criteria for a job that I wanted, which was: I could stay in Georgia, I would make more money than I was currently making, and it had stability to it. I think one of the biggest things about deciding to leave my postdoc was that [while] I was really happy being a postdoc, I really loved doing science and I was good at it, the job is temporary. I couldn't be a staff scientist because Victor's lab already has staff scientists because he's so wonderful <chuckle>. If I can't do [science] here, there's not really another place that I can want to do that at.
AB: What was the thing that was frightening you about even considering leaving academia?
KSS: Oh, I think the biggest thing for me was the fear of failure. Being really good at academic science, at being a scientist, in this way of planning experiments and when you know the outcomes of how things could go, that gives you a sense of confidence, right? But with this new thing, I could leave and fail completely. I could just fall flat on my face, [with] no idea what I'm doing. So, there was a sense of true terror that I, a person who had always been very successful, would make this decision and kind of undo all of that success and people would be disappointed in me. I think that was also a very big one: that people would be disappointed in me or that I would let down my friends or my family.
I got to have very upfront conversations with people that seem silly now, but at the time I was very pressed about them. I was like, 'Are we still going to be friends if I don't do this job anymore?' And they all went 'Duh, Kaela, what are you talking about?' I think so much of my identity, self-worth, and value were tied to being a successful neuroscientist. It took a lot, not just career coaching but life stuff too, for me to see that that's not true. I am valuable and worthy and great without a career. A lot of it was finding my own idea of self-worth and coming to the realization that I am not my job. I'm a person and I don't have to be exceptional at everything that I do.
AB: How are you working on that for yourself as you get a little older, this entanglement of your self-worth, who you are as a person, and the job that you do?
KSS: I think it's really, really hard. Most of my best friends are married with kids and sometimes I try to talk to them about these things but they just don't have the time [or] the capacity to be this existential. I say that to emphasize that a lot of the soul searching I did was on my own or in therapy, so it feels extra messy. I used to dream as a kid of being exceptional all of the time. Not even dream of it, I considered myself, and my family treated me as if I was excellent all of the time, and that my excellence made me better than other people. It's so weird to think that and then have that reality sort of shattered.
When I was at the very beginning of my postdoc, I felt like I was just constantly having to prove myself all of the time, to no one specifically except for myself. I think I was just chasing the feeling of acceptance and validation. With every award I won or thing I did, it was just kind of [felt] like, That's it? It was like very anticlimactic <laugh>. It made it suck, honestly. It made the things worse.
Ubadah Sabbagh is my actual best friend and I used to send him voice notes or text messages all the time and I'd be like, 'I just want to be mediocre. I just want to be a normal girlie. I want to be dumb. I can't keep having these 'work on myself' conversations every three days.'
No one else is putting in this kind of work because they have other things to do <laugh>. He was a great best friend during that time, saying 'You'll get through it, bestie.' I think it's such a difficult place that Black women are in very often, the idea that there's no rest. There's only excellence all of the time. And even at my worst, I still am constantly working on myself. I was talking to my friend's daughter yesterday who's 14 and she's going through an existential crisis. I was telling her things that I tell myself now, but I wish I had told myself earlier, such as 'You don't have to be working on yourself all of the time. You can just exist. You can make mistakes and not consider it a moral failure or moral bankruptcy for yourself.'
I'm not entirely sure where that level of scrutiny came from in my life. I would say that my family is pretty supportive, but [there are many] things that I realized that I've personally taken on as moral failures if I do them versus anybody else. Like, anybody else can do that and I'd be fine, but me specifically...
The biggest advice I can give to people that are going through that is to journal it out, write it out, to voice-note it out. Then, the second thing, in addition to putting it somewhere, is to just start doing things that you're maybe not good at. I'm a big planner, so instead of having a plan to go to the farmer's market or spend all day going to thrift stores or something that, I would just go do it. I would just get in the car and experience a day that wasn't super planned out where I could have paid for parking beforehand, but I didn't. To just have experiences and do the things that you enjoy is really important in that way.
AB: Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, I'm kind of making mental notes because I'm hearing a lot of myself in you. I'm the planner and when I travel, I have these lists of things that I need to do the day prior, the week prior. And I mean, I don't know if I could get rid of those lists, but I think there [could] be certain [times], a weekend or just an afternoon, [where I don't] have to think about which train I'm going to take and what time I'm going to leave. I can just leave when I want to and catch the train that's there and just see what happens, see what unfolds, you know?
KSS: I don't know if you experienced this too, but a big mantra that I use in those moments is I have time. I don't know why, much like that Paramore song that just came out, I just always felt like I was running out of time. I had to hit these milestones by a certain time, do all of these things by a certain time and I, humbly or not, have far succeeded every goal I've ever had for myself. So, I like to remind myself [of that] when I'm frantically doing something. I have time, there's time in the day, and I'll figure it out.
AB: It might have to become a mantra of mine as well. You did mention that you identify as a Black woman. I know you're also a Samoan woman and you're a Queer person as well, [so] let's talk about identity! Let's talk about how it informs your life and the work that you do and how you walk through this world. Let's talk about that. Tell me your story from that perspective.
KSS: I love talking about identity. I love learning the context of people's lives and what drives them intrinsically, like, their identity, and how that influences the choices that they make externally. I grew up in suburban... suburban is the best way to describe Grayson, Georgia. My mom was Samoan and white, but she definitely just looked white, and my dad was Black. They're both from very small towns and, much to their credit, they instilled in me a lot of southern-isms and phrasings that are horrible. Like, little girls are meant to be seen and not heard for the sake of politeness, for other people's [sake], being quiet in public. But they were always really adamant that I could do whatever I wanted. I was really lucky that where I went to high school was a very open place or a very accepting place. One of my friends was our student body class president and he was an out gay Black man at 16―I guess he wasn't a man; he was a boy at 16―and that was wild! I look back on it now and I [go] 'Wow, we were pretty progressive for some kids constantly hanging out at a Target!' <Laugh>
Then, when I went to Agnes, another incredibly progressive place, I really got to experience and know what it was like to be a Black woman, right? Grayson is a predominantly white area and Agnes has no racial or ethnic majority that attends the school, so it's incredibly diverse, but I learned a lot about the way that people perceive me. I thought it was hard then, but it actually became far worse when I went to Georgetown. I think that was probably my first bout of extreme racism or prejudice, feeling as if my identity was a bad thing or just not celebrated. That was something that Agnes really instilled in all of its students, this idea that who you are is so valuable and you bring so much to the table regardless of how you look or who you love and all these things.
That was a great learning moment, a great learning curve for me both at Georgetown, the university, but also in DC, the city. I think there's something to seeing the violence of poverty and seeing gentrification and accidentally [playing] a part in gentrification of certain areas and not knowing the history and culture of a place. So much of my identity, I think, I've tried to use it as a growing tool, a way to accept myself, but also to remember that there are always people who have it worse off than me, and what am I doing to contribute to their struggles or their growth, and what are my ideals and how does that work?
I come from generational wealth and even my time as a postdoc probably would've been far worse if I had moved to a different city or my dad didn't give me the house that I live in. My financial situation would've been way different. One of the things that I [was] constantly thinking about in a lot of the organizing work that I did in the start of my postdoc was, 'If I'm struggling and I have all of these things going for me, what is happening to people who don't have these things going for them?' The way that I think about my identity is really as a blessing, right? I feel really happy to have grown into the woman that I am and the person that I am, and I also feel really lucky to have found people who are constantly encouraging me and supporting me, and also kicking my butt <laugh> and encouraging me to think about things outside of myself.
AB: What values do you think you're going to bring into your presidency of Black in Neuro? Congratulations by the way! We've talked so much about ideals and what you thought of yourself and how you're starting to, I guess, learn about who you are as a person more and more. So, what are the things that you think you're going to bring into the role?
KSS: To me, for Black in Neuro, it feels like such a sacred, beautiful place. Like, 'Everything the light touches...' Mufasa talks about in the Lion King <laugh>
KSS: To me, the biggest thing I want to be able to give the organizing team and the community members of Black in Neuro is a sense of ownership of the community, a sense of say in what we do and how we do it. I also want to make sure that people get the credit that they deserve. Angeline Dukes, who's our founding president but also former president now, she has done so much for Black in Neuro that, on a surface level you can see it on social media, but the way that she lights up rooms when we're talking about boring stuff like policy or budgets. The way that she pours into people is so invaluable. It's priceless, like those old Visa commercials <laugh>.
I want people to get that recognition. I want us to have that sense of ownership and agency over what we do. I also want us to continue to grow. I feel like so many of the people on the board now as they transition to post-grad student roles and postdoc life represent very different sectors now of the scientific community, whether that be medical writing or nonprofit work or industry work. I just want to make sure that we have that level of representation in the programming that we have as well. I hope my role as president will really just be shining a light on how great we as an organizing team are and have been.
AB: That's beautiful. I can't wait to see what happens over the next few years and what you're able to accomplish. I'm sure it'll be all wonderful and amazing things.
I usually end the conversation with words of wisdom to the next generation. Sometimes I do words to your younger self: when you were five years old, what would you tell that little version of yourself? But I actually want to change it a little bit for the purposes of our conversation. What would you tell the version of you that was in the midst of your existential crisis about who you are now?
KSS: Yeah. Wow, that's such a great question, and I'm not normally a question rater.
KSS: I think I would tell her to just keep going. It's not just persevering, it's learning about yourself, and that is one of the greatest gifts that you can give another person: the space and the room to be who they truly are and to learn who they are. I think there's something to having lived a very academically or scholarly successful life. There are just things that you don't know about yourself, and you can't live your life to the fullest if you don't know who you are. I think I would encourage myself, to [also] know that the ultimate prize is you. You are the ultimate thing to be had and to know about. Also have some faith in yourself. I am really bad about having faith in my own ideas or―
AB: <Laugh>, Oh, you gotta work on that!
KSS: Yeah! <Laugh> I say that, but I think it's just in the moment of strife, I'm not very good at it. Reflectively, I'm like, Oh yeah, I knew all along <laugh>.
AB: Well, I'll take this moment to say thank you, Kaela. It's been amazing chatting with you. It's been a beautiful and insightful conversation. Honestly, I'm just going to be watching your success as you continue to do all the things that make you happy. And yeah, believe in yourself; you're amazing! We all think you're amazing. Hopefully, you'll start to learn that and, you know, assimilate it into your idea and your vision of yourself as time goes on.
KSS: Thank you so much, that was really nice <laugh>.
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